**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
starring Ondrej Vetchý, Krystof Hádek, Tara Fitzgerald, Charles Dance
screenplay by Zdenek Sverák
directed by Jan Sverák
by Walter Chaw Taking its name from a song sung during the course of the film, Oscar-winner (for 1996's Best Foreign Language Film Kolya) Jan Sverák's Dark Blue World is a historical melodrama set mostly in WWII-era Britain that's notable because its elaborate battle sequences appear to have been carried off without the aid of CGI. The film is lacklustre and puzzlingly-paced--apologists would call it leisurely, I call it lugubrious--and though the story at its core is indeed compelling and rich for exploration, Sverák's instinct towards sentimentality leads to one too many shots of sad-eyed dogs, exhausted under the weight of their status as beleaguered metaphors for loyalty and friendship. The picture could only have been salvaged by Dark Blue World focusing on the macrocosm of the plight of Czech pilots for which its tale of a doomed love triangle is the microcosm. As it is, Dark Blue World plays a good deal like Gregory Nava's brooding A Time of Destiny: they mutually explore the bonds of friendship forged under war and tested by the crucible of love.
We're introduced to Frantisek Sláma (Ondrej Vetchý), a pilot in the Czech army in early 1939, while he's sitting in a plane in a golden field of winter wheat, teaching his beautiful girlfriend Hanicka (Linda Rybová) about the throttle and joystick's lewder implications. Later, as they make love in her parents' home, the news comes over the radio that Germany has invaded and that the Czech government, without firing a shot, has capitulated. After turning over his airfield to the Nazis, Frantisek and his most promising young charge Karel (Krystof Hádek) flee the country to fly with the RAF. In a framing story, set in 1950, we are reunited with Frantisek as he rots in a Czech forced labour prison, life-sentenced there by the new communist regime for the crime of heroism. Back in wartime Britain, Karel meets and falls in love with the widowed Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), and in the most contrived development, Susan without warning falls for Frantisek. Interspersed with this largely unsuccessful love triangle drama are effective bits in the Czech labour camp and a few impressive (if strangely non-kinetic) aerial fights.
Shot with an eye for expansive panoramas on a budget ten times the norm for a Czechoslovakian film, Dark Blue World can never quite escape a story that is basically just a tired and somewhat implausible love triangle. It follows the trend of Enemy at the Gates and Pearl Harbor and countless other war films past and present in the benighted belief that a political intrigue needs a clumsily-manufactured artifice to drive its basic motions. Fascinating historical injustice is shoved to the background to accommodate a story we've seen too many times in too many stagnant permutations. The lesson that must be learned is that no amount of impressively staged skirmishes can cover for actors forced to go through the motions of all too familiar interpersonal orbits.
Once Dark Blue World fails to spark much interest in the perplexingly arbitrary love lives of Karel, Susan, and Frantisek, it loses much in the way of audience investment in the combat sequences. A final battlefield sacrifice made between feuding friends is, in fact, an unfulfilling martyrdom because first and foremost it's poorly established that a sacrifice has even been made, and then it's not clear that this sacrifice was necessary in any event. Too much is assumed in our understanding of what falls under the sweep of verities like friendship and love; too little is shown. It's not a surplus of subtlety that troubles me, but rather a surfeit of substance. Worth a look for WWII aficionados thanks to precise period detail and intoxicating glimpses of vintage aircraft again dominating the skies over Dover, Dark Blue World hopes that its mundane structure is enough to keep up with its soaring aspirations. Like its lovesick protagonists, the film hopes in vain. Originally published: December 28, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Dark Blue World arrives on region one DVD in a top-notch presentation from Columbia TriStar Home Video. With an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the anamorphic widescreen transfer has supple colours and delicate contrast--a softness to the image seems organic to the cinematography. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix sneaks up on you, kicking into gear during the dogfights after relative restraint; I recommended turning up the volume a notch past reference in any case to level the playing field against Buena Vista's ultra-loud Pearl Harbor DVD. In addition to a compelling (English-language) feature-length commentary track with Sverák and producer Eric Abraham in which they alternate between discussion of the project and the historical events that inspired it, the disc contains the comprehensive "The Making of Jan Sverák's Dark Blue World" (33 mins.), wherein discussions of story and character with father and son Sverák and various cast members add up to an exploration of the film's themes. A great spoiler of movie magic occurs when Sverák operates the hose to douse his actors in stage rain himself.
Also on board: the fascinating, informally titled "The Making of the Special F/X" (7 mins.), a series of before-and-after comparisons of effects shots prior to compositing and other treatments--Star Wars eat your heart out, and I mean that: these are terrific and almost invisible examples of CGI; and "Aerial Symphony," an assembly of bomber footage scored to the music of Tmavomodrý Svět (in Dolby Surround). An overlong montage of production stills (10 mins.), the trailer and Czech teaser for Dark Blue World, and trailers for Divided We Fall, From Here to Eternity, and Black Hawk Down (in DD 5.1) round out the platter. English subtitles default during the Czech dialogue. Originally published: May 30, 2002.